Scramble to protect public may leave some more vulnerable

File photoSara Stanley, director of Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC), is worried precautions for the pandemic may unintentionally put some abuse victims at risk. 

SALEM — In the rush to prevent the spread of coronavirus and find ways to protect officers, some police departments are now requiring people to stay outside stations when making reports. 

But that, and other policies implemented by state officials to prevent the nation's health care system from becoming overrun, could unintentionally put victims of domestic abuse at greater risk, according to the director of a Salem-based domestic violence organization. 

"I genuinely think everyone is trying to do the best they can in this situation, but it means vulnerable people are more and more at risk," said Sara Stanley, director of Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC). 

There has not been any uptick in arrests for domestic violence during the past several weeks, according to a spokeswoman for the Essex District Attorney's office. Domestic violence crimes, including assault and battery, suffocation or strangulation, violation of restraining orders, and witness intimidation in domestic abuse cases, are among the limited number of offenses for which police are still making arrests during the pandemic.

But Stanley and other advocates for victims of domestic abuse fear that with more families forced to stay home, domestic abuse could rise — with limited ability to identify victims. 

"The focus now is on sheltering in place, yet we know that home is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women," said Stanley. 

Couples are cooped up, facing tremendous stress, including financial instability, and isolation, all of which can aggravate the situation. 

In addition, children aren't going to school, where teachers or other school employees might pick up on signs of child abuse. Victims of domestic abuse aren't seeing their own families, friends or co-workers, who might be able to check on them. 

And with no time alone, some victims may be finding it impossible to reach out, she suggested.

"People experiencing abuse are very, very isolated," said Stanley. "Our general societal safety nets are deteriorating by the day." 

State courthouses are closed to the public in Massachusetts, but judges are still conducting proceedings remotely for emergency matters — including domestic restraining orders and harassment prevention orders. That's something many victims may not know, however. 

"The situation with the courts right now is very confusing," Stanley said. 

The Supreme Judicial Court also issued an order last week extending existing orders so they remain in effect until courts re-open.

But Stanley said she is hearing that some victims are confused about where to go to apply for the orders, and fear being seen by their abusers if they have to stand outside a police station to file a report. 

Victims can and should still always call 911 if they are in immediate danger, she said. Police departments are also aware of how to contact courts to obtain emergency restraining orders.

HAWC is also still operating its 24-hour hotline at 800-547-1649 for any victim of abuse who needs help in applying for an order or who has questions about where to go. During business hours, there will also be staff available at 978-744-8552 who can assist victims with finding out the status of a court case or a restraining order or help them to develop a safety plan. 

HAWC's website, hawcdv.org, also includes links to contacts at the organization, though Stanley also cautions that it is possible for an abuser to learn where someone has gone online from a browser history. 

Meanwhile, HAWC has had to suspend much of its other programming, including support groups and therapy programs, and is trying to find alternative ways of staying in contact when phone calls, text messaging or videoconferencing could potentially alert an abuser that a woman is seeking the organization's assistance. 

With many other state offices shut down, social workers aren't able to assist women in seeking aid from the Department of Transitional Assistance. Typically, a worker would bring someone to the office to apply, but DTA workers are now working remotely. 

Emergency shelters are also facing concerns about potential coronavirus outbreaks. "Shelter placements are incredibly difficult right now," said Stanley. "Any kind of congregate living is high-risk, so that's not always feasible."  

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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